By Michael D. Watkins
// This article was originally posted on hbr.org
The actions you take during your first few months in a new job have a major impact on your success or failure. Build positive momentum early on and it will propel you through your tenure. Make some early missteps and you could face an uphill battle for the rest of your time in the job.
The biggest challenge leaders face during these periods is staying focused on the right things. You are drinking from the proverbial fire hose while trying to get settled and figure out how to start to have an impact. It’s easy to take on too much or to waste your precious time. So, it helps to have a set of questions to guide you. Here are the five most important ones to ask…and keep on asking on a regular basis:
How will I create value?
This is the single most important question. Why were you put in this role? What do key stakeholders expect you to accomplish? In what timeframe? How will your progress be assessed? As you seek to answer this question, keep in mind that the real answer may not be what you were told when you were appointed or recruited for the job; it may also evolve as things progress and you learn more. Remember, too, that you will probably have multiple stakeholders to satisfy, not just your boss, and that they may have divergent views of what constitutes “success.” It’s essential to understand the full set of expectations so you can reconcile and satisfy them to the greatest degree possible.
How am I expected to behave?
Unless you have been hired to change the culture of your new organization, you should strive to understand and conform to its most important norms of behavior. Think of culture as the organization’s immune system. It exists, in large measure, to prevent “wrong thinking” and “wrong behaving” from infecting the social organism. So you violate key norms of behavior at your peril; becoming viewed as “not belonging here” can lead to isolation and, ultimately, to derailment. As you seek to understand key norms, keep in mind that they may differ across the organization. It may also depend on the level at which you are operating: success after promotion may depend, in no small measure, on you “showing up” in different ways.
Whose support is critical?
Your success is likely to depend on people over whom you have no direct authority; so, you need to build alliances. The starting point for doing this is to understand the political landscape of your new organization and learn to navigate it. Who has power and influence? Whose support is crucial and why? Armed with insight into the who, you can focus on how you will secure their backing. Usually this involves more than just building relationships. You need to understand what others are trying to accomplish and how you can help them. Reciprocity is the firmest foundation on which to build allies.
How will I get some early wins?
Leaders in transition energize people by getting early wins — quick, tangible improvements in the organization that create a sense of momentum. Done well, they build your credibility, accelerate your learning, and win you the right to make deeper changes in the organization. So, you need to identify the most promising ways to make a quick, positive impact and then organize to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible.
What skills do I need to develop to excel in this role?
As Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach put it, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” The skills and abilities that got you to this point in your career may not be the ones (or all of the ones) you need to be successful in your new job, and it’s all too easy to fall into the comfort-zone trap. Put another way, to become fully effective in you new role, you will probably have to do some personal development. This doesn’t mean you can’t get off to a good start immediately, but the sooner you understand what new capabilities you need to develop to excel in the role, the better. Failure to grasp this essential point diminishes the potential for future career advancement.
Ask yourself these five questions as you start a new role and keep asking them on a regular basis. Set aside 30 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on whether the answers are still clear or have changed in any way. Doing so will enable you to stay on the right track through your transition and beyond.
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